Suggsville USA: Democratic Opportunities in Communities
If community well-being is related to a habit of working together, people’s inability to join together is a serious problem, not only for a community, but also for democracy. In this Cousins Research Group Report on Citizens in Democracy, David Mathews describes the ways that citizens go about the work—what the Kettering Foundation calls “democratic practices”—that puts more control in their hands, and it identifies opportunities to do the work.
Suggsville USA isn’t a real town. It is a composite based on communities that the foundation has studied. Its citizens are grappling with problems shared by communities across the country: vacant storefronts and falling property values, unemployment, and substance abuse. In Suggsville, however, citizens and institutions (the local community college, for example) begin to work together and alongside one another to name the problems they are encountering, to frame the issues, and to identify the options for dealing with them. Community members and officials hold public deliberations to decide what to do, and they identify and commit resources for implementing the decisions.
As a result of the deliberations, a number of small initiatives are launched: vacant space is donated so that an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter can meet; a church organizes a program where people can teach each other skills like cooking, sewing, and repairing household items; and a community park is cleaned up. The work that people do together is valuable and it also demonstrates that people joining forces can make a difference. Some of the projects don’t work, but the town learns from its failures and makes changes as it moves forward. The Suggsville story is an example of “building on what grows.” The community’s greatest accomplishment is in seeing the potential in what already exists.